• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Around the kitchen table

In Lebanon, a country that’s been torn apart by war and civil unrest, one man is using food to promote local unity.

Village cook Oum Ali and a Tawlet chef. Photo/Brett Atkinson
Village cook Oum Ali and a Tawlet chef. Photo/Brett Atkinson

With 18 official religions, Lebanon’s extreme cultural and ethnic diversity has historically been a recipe for both cosmopolitan understanding and civil unrest. Now one charismatic Beiruti is nurturing his country’s shared love of food to promote reconciliation in the Middle East’s most diverse nation.

I meet Kamal Mouzawak at Tawlet restaurant on the edge of Beirut’s Armenian district of Bourj Hammoud. Minor gentrification is pending, but meanwhile the eatery is still next to gritty tyre-repair shops and smokey wood-fired bakeries turning out manoushe, Lebanon’s iconic flatbread.

Beyond Bourj Hammoud’s industrious bustle, Mouzawak’s vision is reinforced daily in Tawlet’s sleek but welcoming interior, channelling decor that’s more trendy Melbourne than troubled Middle East. Tawlet translates as “kitchen table”, and Mouzawak’s focus is on harnessing food to bring people together, irrespective of cultural, political or ethnic backgrounds. His background includes stints as a food writer, a TV chef and a board member of Slow Food International, and now he’s inspiring a renaissance in traditional food.

“It’s not just the food that’s important,” he says, “it’s the getting together and the sharing of this food that’s important for the future of the country.”

Every weekday, a chef from a ­different part of the country prepares a buffet lunch, drawing on his or her history, traditions and hometown flavours. Tawlet’s 30 village cooks, shepherds and farmers travel to Beirut for one day a month, often supplying the meal’s ingredients from their own gardens and smallholdings. Traditional flavours and local dishes previously threatened by conflict and the Lebanese diaspora are shared and celebrated, and the skilled cooks recognised by Mouzawak as “producer chefs” also get significant advantages.

“Yes, they are peasants and farmers,” he says, “but they’re doing something just as important as anyone else. They get all the economic benefits and have direct access to consumers.”

Fresh cheeses in oil. Photo/Brett Atkinson
Fresh cheeses in oil. Photo/Brett Atkinson

Today’s chef is Oum Ali, a Muslim mother from the ­village of Maj­delzoun in south Lebanon, near the border with Israel. As her son does his homework, she’s busy preparing lunch in the open kitchen. Tawlet’s onsite cook and waiters drift in and out of her command, commu­nicating in a cosmopolitan patois that incorporates Arabic, French and even the odd English word.

Deft actions produce perfectly compact torpedoes of frakeh, with spicy raw lamb blended with bulgur wheat and spices and herbs, including cinnamon, cumin and marjoram, ready for cooking. Baked fatayer pastries, stuffed with sheep’s cheese and olives, form golden mini-mountains and abundant salads are studded with mint, thyme and a zingy sprinkling of sumac.

Her laban emmo incorporates lamb in a yogurt sauce, and young green wheat is roasted and grilled with chicken for a robust bowl of freekeh ma’djej. It’s all authentic, packed with flavour, and light years away from the shawarmas, hummus and baba ganoush served in Lebanese restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney.

A pale ale infused with za’atar, sumac, mint, sage and anise by Beirut’s 961 craft brewery is a surprising addition to some of south Lebanon’s most traditional recipes.

Mouzawak passionately describes Tawlet as much more than a restaurant.

“It’s a farmers’ kitchen,” he gently corrects me when we first meet at the eatery, which follows another remarkable project he established in 2005.

Lebanon’s first farmers’ market, Souk el Tayeb, operates under the banner of “Make Food, Not War”. Every Saturday morning in the city’s rapidly re-emerging downtown precinct, the market brings the country to town, with about 45 stallholders from all parts of Lebanon. Ten years on from its beginnings promoting the “United Farmers of Lebanon”, Souk el Tayeb is a Beirut institution. It even stayed open through the dark days of 2006’s Lebanon-based conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.


About 90% of the chefs from Tawlet are market regulars, and Palestinian, Muslim, Druze and Christian producers showcase their artisan products and traditional foods side by side in a location that just a few decades ago was an epicentre of civil war.

Dressed in traditional black baggy trousers, ­Hussein Abu Mansour from a Druze village in the Bekaa Valley sells chewy dried-fruit pestil and glasses of grape and pomegranate juice. Suzanne Doueihy from the Christian Maronite town of Zgharta in northern Lebanon is the country’s acclaimed “Queen of Kibbeh”, and her baked dish of kibbeh bi labneh layers minced lamb with yogurt and pine nuts.

Armenian dishes from Beirut’s Sona Tikidjian include lahme bi ajine – a spin on lahmacun or Turkish pizza, and just one of the dishes that shares an Anatolian and Armenian heritage. Maurice Habib’s fragrant honey is from Lebanon’s famed cedar forests.

“Food is an easy and direct way to promote reconciliation, so why not use it?” says Mouzawak, as we amble from stall to stall.

I catch up with Oum Ali following my lunch at Tawlet a few days earlier. She’s a regular at Souk el Tayeb most Saturdays, as the extra income helps her put her family through school.

She throws me a shy smile as she sits around her saj, the convex griddle that’s ubiquitous across the Middle East. She scatters a sizeable portion of chilli-laced labneh cheese onto the unleavened manoushe wrap she has just prepared, then she folds it gently and carefully presents me with my order wrapped in newspaper.

An organic espresso from a nearby stall combines for a perfect brunch in a surprising city.

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.